by Bonnie J. Gisel with images by Stephen J. Joseph, Heyday Books, November 2008, 256 pages, $45.00
John Muir is best known as a mountaineer and wilderness advocate, but he was also a serious scientist who studied the geology, zoology, and botany of the many places he lived and visited. He was most passionate about botany, and he left a record of his botanical explorations not only in his writing but also in the thousands of plants he collected.
In Nature’s Beloved Son, environmental historian Bonnie Gisel traces Muir’s travels and his passion for botany through his plant specimens as well as his writing. The book follows Muir’s fascination with “flower people,” from his boyhood in Scotland and Wisconsin through his thousand-mile walk from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, his 40 months in Yosemite, and his 22 months in Alaska. Large sections of the text are in Muir’s own words, taken from his published works as well as his unpublished letters, journals, and even notes on scraps of paper.
Noted Bay Area landscape photographer Stephen Joseph spent three and a half years scanning and digitally restoring more than 600 images of Muir’s plant specimens, journal entries, and letters, as well as maps, historical photographs, and other artifacts. The restorations of the plant specimens are so beautifully presented they appear three-dimensional, and it is easy to see why, throughout the lengthy process, Joseph “never tired of the thought that Muir had picked and preserved each plant.”
The result of Gisel’s and Joseph’s work is a thorough and beautiful study of a lesser-known side of John Muir. The book is not only a testament to the depth and breadth of Muir’s connection to plants and flowers; it is also a unique view into the source of his passion for preservation.